The Lions backup center was a pleasant surprise in 2021, but he may have played his way out of Detroit.
Last week, we concluded our free agency series for the Detroit Lions players who are set to become unrestricted free agents on March 16 should the team not come to an agreement with the player before then. If you have any interest in catching up with those articles, you can reach each of them here: Tracy Walker, Charles Harris, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Alex Anzalone, Josh Reynolds, KhaDarel Hodge, Nick Williams, Dean Marlowe, Kalif Raymond, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Tim Boyle, Tyrell Crosby, and Joel Heath.
Now it’s time to move on to the Lions’ restricted free agents. Detroit has already re-signed two of them—fullback Jason Cabinda and linebacker Josh Woods—but there are four others whose fate remains unclear.
We’re going to kick off this four-part series with the most surprising player from the 2021 Lions, who may have performed his way out of Detroit: backup center Evan Brown. Let’s take a closer look at Brown’s breakout year and what the future holds for the young lineman.
Brown was added to the Lions’ roster late in 2020 and even got a little playing time towards the end of the season when Frank Ragnow was dealing with a fractured throat. Brown didn’t get the start in any games but had to come in when Joe Dahl suffered an injury of his own. There was nothing too notable about his performance in those 44 snaps, but he did enough to earn a futures contract from Detroit—a move notably made before the Lions even hired new general manager Brad Holmes.
So going into training camp, there were few expectations for Brown. That said, Detroit had no clear backup center, giving Brown the opportunity to compete with the likes of undrafted rookies Drake Jackson and possibly even Logan Stenberg, who struggled to look the part of center in 2020, but could have developed those skills behind the scenes.
Training camp wasn’t particularly inspiring for any of Detroit’s reserve linemen, but that seemed to work in Brown’s favor, as most people had him in on their final 53-man roster predictions.
16 games (12 starts): 66.8 PFF grade — 18th out of 40 qualifying centers
Tragedy struck the Lions roster when All-Pro center Frank Ragnow suffered a severe turf toe injury that would end up costing him the final 13 games of the season. The perception, at the time, was that Ragnow was one of the least replaceable players on the roster.
However, Brown came in and held his own, despite not starting a single game before the 2021 season. Throughout the entire season, PFF credited him with just one sack allowed and eight pressures. His pass blocking grade of 72.4 was seventh-best in the league, and he finished the season with ESPN’s ninth-best pass block win rate among centers.
He was less effective as a run blocker, and that stood out a lot in short-yardage situations and the red zone—where the Lions really struggled in 2021—but Brown’s overall season was way better than expected.
Contract status: Restricted free agent
Brown is just 25 years old, and he proved in 2021 that he is a valuable backup with possibly even a starter ceiling. Good offensive linemen are hard to come back, so there will be a market for Brown. I’ve already seen some Bengals fans sniffing around.
PFF graded Brown with a modest 66.8 score for the year, but that includes a Pass Block grade of 72.4 and a Run Block grade of 62.9
His 98.9% pass block efficiency ranked 6th of 40 centers (Hopkins 20th).
His grade on True Pass Sets ranks him 5th amongst centers (efficiency 3rd)
But Brown is a restricted free agent, so the Lions have some ability to control his future. Detroit could place a tender on Brown—which basically means a one-year, fixed contract. Brown would still get the opportunity to negotiate with other teams, but they would have to offer more than the one-year tender for Brown, plus potential draft compensation, depending on the tender.
Here are the tender options for the Lions (contract totals are estimates):
So if the Lions were to give Brown a first-round tender—a one-year, $5.562 million deal—another team would have to offer Brown a better contract and give the Lions a first-round pick to get him. An original round tender means the draft compensation the Lions would receive is equal to where this player was drafted. In this case, Brown went undrafted, so the Lions would not get compensation.
It’s worth noting, too, if a team offers a better contract for Brown after the Lions have tendered him, Detroit has an opportunity to match that new offer.
So how much are the Lions willing to spend on a backup center? A $4 million contract seems like a lot to pay Brown, but it would likely keep him in Detroit for certain. It doesn’t seem likely someone will be willing to spend a second-round pick on him. But if Detroit opts for an original-round tender at just $2.43 million, another team seems very likely to swoop in and take a chance on Brown as competition for a starting job elsewhere. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to try.
Detroit could try to just circumvent the restricted free agent process and just re-sign Brown like they did with Cabinda and Woods. However, it’s hard to see from Brown’s point of view why he would want to willingly stay in Detroit. Sure, they’re the ones that gave him this opportunity, and Detroit coaches certainly deserve some credit for his impressive year. But he won’t be jumping Ragnow on the depth chart any time soon, and his value as a potential starter may never be higher. Now would be an excellent time for him to test the market.
If the Lions want to lock in Brown for 2022, it’ll likely cost them $4 million, and that is likely just too much for a backup center. That figure would be higher than nearly half of the starting centers in this league.
In other words, Brown should catch a nice pay raise in 2022, but unless the Lions want to overpay for a backup center, it will likely be somewhere else.